Sherman, Ohio, was old and compact in the center but had sprawled outward in recent years, its rural borders redefined by strip malls and housing developments. The community had been built on top of a swamp, and the editorial page in the local paper provided an ever-increasing collection of letters from people whose homes were sinking despite the contractors' promises that the ground was solid. The families who had been there for generations hated the newcomers, and vice versa, but everyone acted friendly when they bumped into each other at the grocery store.
Devon and I were seniors at Sherman High School. She‘d moved from Virginia two years earlier and lived in a rented house in the middle of town with her father and stepmother. Her father operated a tool repair shop, and her stepmother was a small woman who wore sundresses all year long, drank Bloody Marys for breakfast, and kept careful track of her menstrual cycle on the calendar in the kitchen. Devon's real mother had committed suicide when Devon was nine. She'd slit her wrists and drowned herself in the bathtub while Devon and her father were eating lunch at McDonald's. Devon almost never talked about her mother, but, when she did, she spoke carefully, measuring each word like some rare and precious ingredient.
Our classmates had tormented Devon from the moment she walked in the school doors. They teased her for her seriousness, her thinness, her scraggly black-dyed hair. Her blonde eyebrows almost disappeared against her skin, making her eyes seem huge and her face seem as if it were missing a vital component. But I thought she was beautiful, a fairy tale creature in velvet dresses and leather boots, too special for ordinary life.
I was invisible, unremarkable, the girl who faded into the back of the classroom, and I quickly became her friend, hoping some of that otherworldliness would be transferred onto me, surprised and grateful whenever she offered me her magic.
For the past year, Devon had spent most of her time with a boyfriend named Alex. He was seven years older and lived outside of town in a beat-up farmhouse, where he made pottery that he sold at flea markets. He drove a rusty car with a "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm" bumper sticker and played bittersweet songs on a guitar he'd bought at the Salvation Army for five dollars. I was never sure how they met, but I resented his interference. Often she had bruises on her neck and arms, which she displayed proudly and emphasized with chokers and tank tops. I found the marks repulsive and intriguing, and, when I watched him stick his tongue down her throat, I felt a twinge of envy.
"I've got a house sitting job," Devon said.
"Where?" I could see the deer's head, whole and staring, set off to the side. I wondered what he was going to do with it. Maybe he'd mount it on the wall in the living room. The thought of it staring at Devon and her family while they watched TV and ate microwave chicken dinners made me nervous and giddy.
"Ms. Morrison's place. She's going out of town this weekend and needs someone to look after her cat. I guess she thinks it'll get lonely."
"How'd you get that job?" I asked, but I already knew. Ms. Morrison was our Spanish teacher, an overweight woman with platinum hair who often talked about how gorgeous she was when she was younger. She took a special liking to the kids who were misfits, and few people were more misfit than Devon.
"I guess I was lucky," Devon said. "You should come, too. I'll split the money with you."
"Doesn't Alex want to go?"
"I'm asking you."
"Yeah. OK." I smiled, relieved to be chosen.
Ms. Morrison gave Devon the key at school, and we walked over in the evening as the sky was turning gray. The house was large and Victorian, rising up from between oak trees like a lost monument. We paused on the sidewalk and took in the wraparound porch and stained glass door, the arched windows and wicker rocking chairs. We had expected something different, something more like our teacher, not so grand and somewhat sad.
The cat, a sleek Siamese, greeted us at the door with a tilted head and confused meow. "Its name is Eddie," Devon said. "Eddie, your momma's gone away."
We wandered the rooms. Ms. Morrison had furnished the place in antiques: large, heavy wooden chairs; worn sofas in floral patterns; tables with neatly turned legs. One wall of the dining room was dominated by a large glass cabinet filled with dolls. They were standing with their arms outstretched and their eyes fixed on points straight ahead, a row of tiny zombies.
Upstairs the five bedrooms burst with ornate couches, oak bureaus, and beds covered with worn quilts. Foggy mirrors hung beside the doors and reflected pallid images back to us. We couldn't tell which one was Ms. Morrison's room. Maybe she slept in all of them, changing beds every night. The house felt much too big for one person and a cat. Our footsteps fell too heavily, and our voices echoed.
"We need music," I said.
We found an old record player and a stack of records in a study at the back of the house. Devon put on a Judy Collins album, and we took pillows from a musty sofa and lay on the floor with them under our stomachs. Devon chipped idly at the polish on her index finger. She was wearing a long purple dress with an empire waist and wide sleeves, which she had bought at a garage sale. I was wearing my usual jeans and tee-shirt. She had a way of making me feel special when we were with our classmates but intensely ordinary when we were on our own.
"This is a cool house," I said.
Devon nodded. "It's a time machine. I don't think she's even got a TV."
"What did your dad do with that deer head?" I asked.
"I don't know. Threw it away, I hope."
"I thought he was saving it for something."
"God, I don't know. I don't talk to him."
"OK." I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Several hairline cracks ran the width of the room, making me think of an egg shell. Over the couch was a perfectly round hole the size of a walnut. I wondered if it went all the way through to the second floor.
The cat wandered in and put its front paws on my arm. I stroked its back. I thought maybe Devon's father really had thrown the head away. It seemed cruel to just discard such an important part of an animal. I pictured the head sitting in a plastic garbage bag, wedged between old cereal boxes and empty yogurt containers, warming in the curbside sun. The image made me profoundly sad.
"I'm hungry," Devon said and pushed herself up. She took the record off the player and left the room. I moved the cat on to my stomach, where it stood for a moment, sniffing my chin. Then it jumped off and ran under the sofa.
Devon was standing in front of the oven with a frozen pizza on a cookie sheet. She nodded toward a note on the table. "She says we can eat this. Extra cheese."
"I like the cat," I said.
"Yeah. Pretty cute." She fiddled with some knobs and then slid the pizza into the oven. "Open my bag. There's a surprise in there."
I went into the front hallway, where we had dropped our jackets and bags, and brought Devon's black duffel into the kitchen. I placed it on the table. "This thing's heavy."
I drew back the zipper and peered inside. Two bottles of red wine nestled among her clothes. I took them out and set them side by side. I could tell they were cheap by the screw-off lids, but that made them even better. The liquid inside was very dark. "I approve," I said.
"That's not all." She hurried over, reached into the bag, and pulled out a plastic vial of pills. She smiled. "Sleeping pills."
I shook my head.
"You take them with the alcohol, and they cause hallucinations," she said.
"Really?" I took the vial and gave it a shake. "Are you sure? They don't just make you fall asleep?"
"Well, I've never actually done it, but I've heard it works."
I opened the vial and poured a couple of pills into my palm. They were pink and tiny. I wondered if Alex had told her about this mixture of pills and alcohol.
"It isn't dangerous?" I asked.
"I don't think so," she said and began rummaging through cupboards.
We decorated the table with paper plates and wide, yellow candles Devon found in a drawer and placed on saucers. With the lights turned off, the flames cast jerky images on the walls and made the room seem somber and hallowed. The cat stood at the doorway and watched, pupils round, as we ate our pizza and drank from plastic goblets.
"Next year I'm going to paint," Devon said. "Seriously paint."
I nodded and swished around a mouthful of wine. She was taking a year off before college and planned to move to Canada, live in an abandoned house, and paint surreal landscapes. She'd never painted before, but she was sure she could do it. I hoped she was right and didn't end up working at her father's repair shop or living on the streets somewhere in Vancouver. Next fall I was going to a tiny liberal arts school in New England that was supposed to be strong in literature, theater, and feminist studies. My family was very proud.
"I wonder if there're any ghosts here." Devon dissected her pizza, removing layers of stringy cheese and tearing apart the crust. "I should have asked."
"I doubt it," I said.
"I once saw the ghost of my mother," Devon said. I looked up. Her voice was showing the effects of the wine, words coming quickly and sloshing over each other, like streams coming together and cascading down a waterfall.
"It was in our old house, right before we moved," she continued. "I couldn't sleep, and I was sitting on the couch, reading, and I saw this shape in the hallway. I thought it might be her because sometimes I felt her around, like just knowing she was there even when I couldn't see her. So I went into the hall, and she was standing there, this blurry outline, and she opened her mouth and then disappeared."
"Sounds kind of scary."
"Yeah, a little. But it was kind of nice, too."
We sat in silence. I ran my hand along the edge of the table, uncertain what to say next. I wanted to cheer her up. "When's Alex coming over?"
"He's not," she said.
"Because I don't want him here."
"Things just went bad last Saturday," she said, her words clipped. She did not want to talk about this.
"What do you mean ‘bad'?"
"We were playing a game. He got a little too forceful."
"Did he hurt you?" I felt a need to protect her, to shield her, to hope she would do the same for me.
"He scared me more than anything."
"He better not come here," I said.
"Oh yeah? And what would you do?"
I knew I would do nothing. I didn't have courage around Alex, or around Devon when she was with Alex. They were a separate world that I could never enter. The secrets Devon kept reminded me that she would never let me know her completely, would never let our friendship go that deep. Her silence meant that, at the core, I was still alone.
"Anyway," she said, "he's not coming."
She grabbed the vial of pills from their place next to the candles. "We should take these now," she said. She twisted off the cap and poured them onto the table.
"How many do we take?"
She shrugged and scooted the pills around with her thumb.
"Let's only take one or two," I said. I didn't want to end up in the hospital.
Devon handed me two pills. "Do it together," she said. She counted to three, and then we put the pills in our mouths and washed them away.
Rain began to fall, its beat on the roof fractured and uncertain, then growing steady, insistent. The cat passed through the rooms, complaining to itself and enjoying the echo of its yells. On wobbly legs, we went out to the porch and sat down on the rockers, our bodies cocooned in afghans we found in the hall closet. The blankets smelled of mothballs and lilac perfume and had large holes I could poke my hand through. I felt light headed from the wine, but I also felt complete, my reality intact. The pills didn't seem to be working.
"I think it takes a while," Devon said. "We should feel it in an hour or so."
I stared at the water running off the porch roof. The front yard was dark, the street lights far away. I thought about Ms. Morrison sitting out here in silence, a cup of coffee in one hand, a smile on her lips as she remembered her adventures hitchhiking through Spain when she was twenty. She‘d had a boyfriend named Eduardo, and he serenaded her and gave her red roses picked right off the bush. "We slept outside in farmers' fields and lived off bread and cheese," she'd told our class. "We hardly spent any money at all. Of course, the world is different now and you'd all probably get killed if you tried it."
A beam of light cut across the porch, and we froze in the sudden exposure. Devon stood and walked to the steps, but I stayed still. I had a good idea who it was.
"I thought he wasn't coming," I said, but she just wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulder blades came together, ridged mountains underneath her clothing.
A car door opened and slammed shut. I heard his combat boots sloshing through puddles, and then Alex was on the porch, gathering Devon in his arms, kissing her. He stroked her back and turned to me. "Hey, there."
I looked away.
Devon spun around and walked back to her seat. She arranged the blanket neatly across her legs. "I didn't know you were coming," she said. Alex shrugged, leaned against the railing, and lit a cigarette.
"I'm reading this book of poetry," he said. "This guy is pretty messed up. I think you'd like it. He writes about people falling off buildings and being buried alive, and he's got this one really good poem about fucking his wife. His words are gorgeous."
Devon swung her feet back and forth, her head down and hair falling in her face. Her pale roots were beginning to show at the scalp. I stared at her, wanting her to look at me. When she didn't, I turned to Alex. I wanted to tell him to go, but Devon began giggling. I glared at him for making her laugh.
"I loaned you that book," she said. "Don't you remember? I told you I loved that book."
"Did you? I thought one of the guys in the band gave it to me."
"We took the pills," she said. "But we don't feel anything. Except kind of drunk." She glanced at me and laughed again. "We should drink more."
"How long ago did you take them?" he asked.
"Like fifteen, twenty minutes."
"Give it another forty." He dropped the cigarette and ground it into the floorboards with the heel of his boot. My muscles tensed. The effects of the alcohol were quickly wearing off, and the porch was in sharp, painful focus.
"I'm cold," Devon said. "Let's go in." She stood, folding the afghan over her arm. Alex followed her inside.
He whistled low. "Look at this place."
We wound our way through the halls, poking our heads into rooms so he could get the effect. Most of the lights were off, and, in the shadows, the large pieces of furniture hunkered down like animals, waiting to pounce.
Devon walked a few inches in front of him, speeding up just out of reach when his fingers grazed her, but looking back and smiling. I trailed behind. The mood of the evening had switched, and I was on the outside.
The candles were still burning in the kitchen. Alex picked up a wine bottle, still two-thirds full, and took a swig. He grimaced. "This is really cheap stuff," he said, but he took another drink and carried it with him as Devon led the way to the study.
She turned on the overhead light, which seemed harsh and unforgiving after the darkness. Alex settled himself on a red velveteen sofa, and she sat at the other end, playing with the sleeves of her dress. I sat on the floor and stroked the cat, who had been following us throughout the tour, giving short, urgent meows.
Alex talked about his band. They had just gotten a gig at a bar in the next town and the drummer, whose name was Toby, was upset because he had to work his regular job as a gas station attendant that night and was going to be replaced by a substitute. Toby wanted the band to reschedule, which Alex thought was particularly funny. As he talked, he drank, and Devon watched him. He was very handsome. He passed the bottle to her, and she leaned down to hand it to me. I shook my head, not wanting to get drunk with Alex in the room. I wasn't sure what I thought he would do, but I knew I didn't trust him. Devon put the bottle to her lips and took a long drink. She had already had most of the first bottle, and her movements were becoming increasingly languid.
"Did I give you this address?" she asked.
Alex smiled. "Nope. Your stepmom told me. She figured you might like it if I came by."
"Oh." Devon seemed to be thinking over this information. "We were just going to hang out," she said, gesturing to me.
His gaze seemed harder as it passed from Devon to me and then back to Devon again. "Do you really mind?"
"No." She shook her head, her neck made of gelatin. "It's fine with me."
"Well, that's good." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer, and kissed her forehead. I knew he was winning her over, that any anger she had felt was sliding away with the alcohol and his touch, and I felt embarrassed for her, and for me.
"I guess I'll go do something," I said, but I stayed where I was.
Alex lifted Devon's chin with his forefinger, his long nail grazing her flesh. "So pretty," he said.
I wanted to scream at Devon, to make her run away with me. But instead I stood and walked out of the room. I wandered down the hall to kitchen, then stopped and looped back. I didn't want to be here, but I couldn't just leave her alone with him. I crouched beside the door and waited, straining to hear what was happening inside. I could hear low voices, murmuring, a soft exclamation. Then silence. I stared hard at the opposite wall. Just barely, I could hear sounds again, only this time they were not words but moans. I did not want to hear this. I stood and hurried down the hall, my heart pounding in irritation. I ran up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
Upstairs the darkness was solid. I pressed my fingertips against the wall and walked carefully. I could hear nothing, and the silence unnerved me. He could be doing anything to her, and I would have no idea.
I remembered the hole in the ceiling; I didn't want to look, but I had no choice. I made my way to the bedroom above the study. A red and blue rug lay beside the bed, and I kicked it aside. There was the hole. I lay down, my chest pressed against the hard wood, and put my eye to the opening.
They were directly below me, on the sofa. He was on top of her, inside her, his blue jeans around his ankles. His hands wrapped around her throat, thumbs pressing against her chin, as if her head were a champagne cork he was trying to pop off. I wondered if he was forcing her. Her face was turned away, but I watched her hands. They grasped his sleeves, not fighting, not limp. I wondered why she wasn't hitting him, why she didn't try to get away. But her thighs were wrapped around his torso, bringing his body closer. He lifted his right hand and slapped her hard across the face. She let out a cry, and he kissed her neck before encircling it again with his hands. I could not tell for sure, but his grip seemed tighter, his purpose more intent. She made a gurgling sound, and he whispered something I could not hear. She gurgled again. "Yeah," he said loudly, "yeah, you do." But she was silent, her hands slipping from his sleeves. Her arms were pale, her wrists weak.
I rolled over and closed my eyes. I did not want to see anymore; I did not want this to be happening. I thought about running downstairs, bursting through the door, pulling him off her. I could call the police. But then I thought about those bruises on her arms, the ones she seemed to want. I didn't know if this was different or the same. They would probably both laugh at me. My skin grew hot in humiliation.
Then I heard a slam. The front door. Either they had left together, or he had killed her. His car started and pulled away, music thumping and wheels splashing water. I lay very still. The house seemed to grow, to become a huge fortress I would be trapped inside forever. Very slowly I lowered my eye back to the hole, half expecting to see Devon's head on the sofa, eyes frozen in the deer's startled stare. But she was sitting on the floor, knees drawn up, alive and swaying.
The study door was wide open. Devon stared straight ahead, her fingertips hovering around her neck. Her hair was a mass of tangles, her dress bunched up around her hips.
"My God," I said.
She turned to look at me, her gaze distant. "Are you feeling the pills? I am. You look all wavy, all strange."
Around her neck were ten red finger marks. I reached out to touch them, but she shook her head, brushing my hand away. They would turn into bruises, deeper and darker than any she'd had before.
"Should I call the police?" I asked.
"No," she said. "He left. He's gone."
"Are you sure?"
She attempted to pull down her skirt, but her movements were sloppy. I knelt beside her and tried to help.
"Why didn't you scream?"
"We really should call the police."
"No. There's no point." She twisted her legs away.
"Can you feel the room shrinking?" she asked. "Can you feel the ground move?"
"Devon, what did he do?"
"It's over. He's gone."
"He didn't . . ." I began and then couldn't finish. The word rape spun around my head, making me feel dizzy and sick. She took a deep breath and looked directly at me. She was crying quietly; I wasn't even sure if she knew she was doing it.
She shook her head.
I held out my hand, but she stood and walked toward the record player, her steps faltering and her arms limp at her sides. I knew I would hear no more.
We were lying on the floor, listening to Bob Dylan. The storm outside had gained momentum, and thunder shook the house. The cat ran through the room in a frenzy, chased by the invisible, howling at nothing.
"The ceiling is breathing," Devon said. She was curled on her side, away from me.
I stared hard at the ceiling, but it was still. I didn't want her to leave me, to go swooping through her dream world while I sat on the ground and watched her fly.
"You'll forget about me," she said. "This time next year, we won't know each other."
"That's not true," I said, but I knew she was right. I looked at our futures, and did not see them intersecting.
"The floor is spiraling," she whispered. "Do you see the way it moves? Like waves all around us. Drawing us in."
Her shoulders shook, and I moved closer and wrapped my arms around her waist. I could not claim the future, but, right now, I loved her. Her body felt brittle beneath my touch, and, somewhere deep inside, I felt her open and break.
She sang quietly along with the album, her voice high and thin. I wanted to be the one singing, to whisper soothing words into her hair, but my throat felt dry and closed. Instead I pressed my body against her back and held her tighter, hoping she could feel my heart beating right next to hers.
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